Soap, circulation and ads

Aslak Berge

Why pay to reach as many customers as possible?

Now I do not deal much with sales. But by virtue of being the SalmonBusiness’ founder, it happens that I discuss subjects with our excellent sellers. Last week, one of them was told that the trade press’ ad prices were “artificially high” and the customer wouldn’t pay for traffic anyway.

I looked at the argumentation, which is probably due to a misunderstanding because one does not have to move so far in the business world before volume becomes central. No more than to the salmon industry; for who would like to settle for one salmon when one can get four at the same price?

One who early discovered the value of reaching as many of the right buyers as possible was the English soap king William Lever.

Aslak Berge

«People already in the soap business could have ran rings around me on manufacturing soap, but none of them understood how to sell soap, and therefore I concentrated on the selling side of soap, advertising, agencies, etc. and left others to look after the works,” said Lever himself.

He built his business during the last decades of the 19th century. A new era unfolded as mass media and public relations would increasingly shape public opinion and beliefs. Advertising cost around 50 pounds in the first year, for the next 20 years, he would spend two million pounds in ads.

“Any fool can make soap, it takes a clever man to sell it,” commented one of the men who distributed the soap ads, British press baron and newspaper magnate Lord Northcliffe, owner of The Times, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, The Observer and The Sunday Times .

When Lever was going to learn sales and marketing, he looked to the US, not least the soap specialist Procter & Gamble.

“I am certain that if there is anybody of people who understand the art of salesmanship and the advertising of domestic articles, it is the Americans.”

He taped the papers with ads inspired by American advertising. Banners and posters were attached to horse-drawn carriages, warehouses, ticket offices and railway stations. He developed catchy slogans aimed at those who made the purchases: Housewives.

Build an empire
The plan worked. William Lever increased his market share every day. The business fast grew out of the factory in Warrington. He thought big. When the banks were waiting for the expansion plans, he used the shares of the family’s wholesale business to finance the purchase of a 1,562-acre plot of land in the borough of Wirral, Merseyside, Liverpool. He immediately started work on building a soap factory and 28 homes for his workers. Everything he earned was poured into Port Sunlight. Lever built quay facility, railway, parks, church and even an art gallery.

Soap exports to other countries soon started. First in Western Europe, then North America and Oceania, driven by customers with good purchasing power. Then oil mills and factories followed in the markets.

He was an avid supporter of free trade, a capitalist and an imperialist. He was unconditionally a supporter of strong men. Lever met Cecil Rhodes in Capetown in 1895, and had Abraham Lincoln and William Gladstone as his role models. His greatest hero, however, was Napoleon Bonaparte and he collected memorabilia of the French emperor in his Napoleon Room in the art gallery of Port Sunlight. Like Napoleon, Lever was a short-lived, energetic strategist. He thought big, visionary, and bold. He wanted to build an empire.

During the opening of Gladstone Hall in Port Sunlight, in 1891, the free trade pioneer celebrated the liberal and four-time-elected Prime Minister William Gladstone: “It was in April 1853 that you removed the duty on soap, and thereby made the manufacture on a large and scientific scale possible. It was in 1861 you removed the duty from paper, and so gave the country its greatest boon; a free and cheap Press. With a duty on paper, a cheap press was impossible, and therefore also a large circulation. Without a large circulation it would be useless to advertise.”

William Lever was knighted after the First World War, but died of pneumonia in 1925. He left a vertically integrated company with 85,000 employees and 187,000 shareholders. Lever’s legacy is now called Unilever, promoting brands such as Sunlight and Dove soap, Lipton tea and Ben & Jerry’s ice cream.


Related Articles